Editor’s Note: “The Reel Black List” is our annual spotlight of brothers and sisters in the worlds of advertising, film, TV, music, radio and media who are making a difference through their contributions and creativity. For the next 29 days, you will be able to celebrate these various personalities with us.
Karen Jean is a fearless woman. She has to be working at David&Goliath, whose mantra is to “be brave.” The production veteran joined the agency in 2013 and has dedicated nearly two decades bringing creative to life. With expertise in the development of all styles of content production, Karen provides a consistency in production direction and supervision ensuring strong brand alignment.
She has worked in both New York and Los Angeles on a number of well-known brands including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, ESPN, Jack In The Box, California Dept. of Public Health/Anti-Smoking, Pepsi, AT&T, M&M Mars and Visa.
Prior to D&G, Karen worked at several creative shops including BBDO Worldwide, Ground Zero and WongDoody. She also knows her Marvel and DC heroes which makes our resident The Geek very happy.
What did You Originally Want to be When You Grow Up? I grew up losing myself within the magical world of the movie musical and the sparkle of Broadway. I very much wanted to grow up and be a Broadway singer. I remember walking around New York City when I was younger just staring at the marquees and imagining my name up in lights. It makes me smile when I think about it even now.
But I was raised by very practical and extremely hardworking immigrant parents and they were not having any of that mess. For them, America was the land of opportunity where you could be anything you wanted as long as you got an education and worked hard. They didn’t want me throwing away my opportunities to chase a pipe dream. Well, they raised a very head strong child and there was no way I was giving up on music completely to be an accountant. I decided if I couldn’t be in front of the audience, I would just go backstage and run it all. Haven’t looked back since.
How did You Get into Advertising? I always knew that I wanted to be involved in radio, TV or music production in some capacity. My first day on my college campus I walked into the college radio station not knowing what to expect. The GM took me under his wing and really helped to show me how to push past my own preconceived boundaries. He would always say, “I haven’t taught you anything that you couldn’t already do.
You just have to start believing in your own abilities.” I started to develop a “nothing can hold me back” attitude to everything I tried. Before I knew it, I was creating radio commercials for local merchants, mixing tracks for local bands and writing and producing audio theatre pieces based on classic short stories in my spare time.
I got so good at producing tracks that I ended up as a teaching assistant for advanced senior level audio production classes while I was still a sophomore. Impressed by my drive, my mentor introduced me to an agency radio producer at DDB Needham in NYC. From there, the rest of my career just rolled on.
Who were Your Mentors? I’ve been blessed to have had several throughout my life. My mom of course was my first mentor. She had to separate from her children for almost five years in order to guarantee their future. She blazed a trail for her family here in America, working hard to save enough funds to obtain green cards for her husband and children.
Without her sacrifice, I honestly would not be where I am today. I also had a mentor in the general manager of my college radio station. He helped me realize the only thing that can stand in my way, is me. A few years later at my first full time advertising job at BBDO New York my then manager, who was not only a talented producer but a gifted violin prodigy, helped me to learn how to approach all things with a calm soul.
No matter how crazy things got (and we’re talking advertising in the late 90’s) she was always cool and collected. “Be the calm that people look to during the storm.” That is one lesson I have never forgotten. Along the way, I have met and worked with so many people both lovely and challenging that have helped me grow.
What is Your Biggest Achievement? I think moving to California from NYC after accepting a position that might have been a little over my head. I was asked to set up the LA arm of a production company whose main office was based out of NYC.
In that true “nothing can stand in my way but me” fashion, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work even though this Brooklyn-born and raised girl knew no one in, and nothing about California. Even after the cross-country moving truck caught fire en route to California and I lost everything that I owned, I held it down. I built a full audio post production studio, helped develop a roster of clients and a solid internal staff.
It was the toughest 18 months of my life but I learned that I actually am capable of doing anything that I put my mind to. Plus, I discovered that Los Angeles had tons of opportunity so I decided to stay in California rather than return to NYC after my contract was up.
What is Your Biggest Disappointment? Oh man. I feel like I have tried so many things in my life that I don’t have a ton of disappointment. I never really back away from a challenge, I’m hard headed in that way.
Even when I know I may fall flat on my face (and it’s happened many times) at least I know I will learn something or gain some new skill sets along the way. If anything, I do wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had disobeyed my parents and just went full steam ahead into Musical Theatre.
Name Your Biggest Pet Peeves? OMG! Laziness and entitlement. I just can’t. When I come across people who think they don’t have to hustle to get somewhere or that someone will hand them opportunities just because, a whole other side of me arises.
I have had people say that I can be intimidating or a “force” to be reckoned with. Well, I’m actually the biggest sweetheart there is, but I have an extremely low tolerance for laziness. Please do not step to me unless your game is tight. In my world, you have to be on point. I can’t and won’t tolerate anything but someone’s best effort.
Predictions for Advertising Over the Next Decade: Smaller consultancies and in-house agencies will be a huge part of the next wave. Marketing budgets are shrinking and consumer focus is constantly shifting with ever-evolving media platforms, it’s tougher to stay consistent with how you reach your broad target audience.
Consumers now live within micro niches and messages need to be tailored to their unique experiences. Consumers are also way smarter and can smell an inauthentic push from a mile away. It’s increasingly important that advertising agencies move toward diversification within their own walls to make sure they reflect the consumer base they are hired to reach and I’m talking more than just a single “Chief Diversity Officer.”
Agencies without proper representation within their ranks are all one tone deaf campaign away from failure.
Name a Job You had that Would Surprise People: I moonlighted as a wedding singer for a while. So funny to think about it. I was an assistant producer in New York just getting my advertising career started, so I would make extra money as a singer for hire.
I worked with about two or three different bands and did everything from weddings to corporate parties to Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Thinking about it now, it was a blast but I can never listen to It’s Raining Men or “I Will Survive” ever again in my life.
What Marvel or DC Superhero do You Get to Play? Okay, now you’re talking. I’m a huge comic book nerd. I have to lay out both universes here. Marvel: Monica Rambaeu. Hard working, honorable and devoted. She was already serving to protect the public before she became the second Captain Marvel (then eventually Photon).
The thing about Monica was she wasn’t born with her abilities. So, she needed to learn how to use her new-found powers and she too learned that the limits to her powers were only within her own mind.
DC: Bumblebee. First, they often drew her with those cute Afro Puffs. Keeping it real and I love it. Second, she didn’t initially have any superpowers either. She was a gifted scientist and that helped her (not unlike Ironman) to fight alongside the Teen Titans.
What do You Wish You had More Time to do? I do wish I had more time to travel. There are so many places and cultures I would like to experience.
What Drives You to be Extraordinary at What You do? My daughter. She is a 10-year-old powerhouse with more potential than I ever had at her age. I push hard now because I want her to see that if you are willing to work, there is nothing that you can’t accomplish.